She is waist-high, with big black eyes, a winning smile and a soothing female voice – this is Luna, and it’s her job to greet visitors to the Neustadt branch of the Sparkasse Bremen savings bank. Luna is a robot, and she has been performing this task since October 2018. She welcomes customers, answers simple questions, and even engages in small talk about Werder Bremen football club. “That makes work easier for the advisers – now they are able to concentrate fully on their consultations,” explains Marc Fiedler, robot engineer and creator of Luna, with pride.
Fiedler founded Blackout Technologies with his colleague Lisa Fischer at the start of 2017. The Sparkasse customers are delighted, and Luna has become part of the team. The robotics experts from Bremen first came to the Sparkasse’s attention when they won the Gründerpreis Bremen, an award for start-ups, in 2018.
“Luna is able to recognise people and converse with them. She can even gauge their age, gender and state of mind and adjust her response accordingly. She really does have her own personality,” explains Fiedler. Blackout is paving the way in social robotics – robots that interact with humans and help them in the office or in day-to-day life.
Social robotics with Blackout Technologies: breaking new ground
It’s still a relatively new field, and very few companies in the west are working on social robotics. It’s more prevalent in Japan, where over 10,000 Pepper robots have already been sold. This is the robot on which Luna at the Sparkasse is based. “The Japanese are mad for her,” says Fiedler. The body, electronics and control mechanism are manufactured by French firm Softbank Robotics.
What makes Bremen’s Pepper, Luna and their fellow robots from the Blackout workshop so special is the software – it is their heart and soul. “Without intelligent software, a robot is just a machine,” explains the 33-year-old. The Bremen-based innovators have combined the robot bodies with artificial intelligence (AI) databases, such as IBM’s Watson and Microsoft’s Azure. Thanks to the computing power of these cloud networks and the clever algorithms behind the AI databases, Bremen-born Luna can process spoken questions, compute their meaning and formulate appropriate responses. That’s something most of their Asian counterparts struggle with.
“Giving personalities to the robots that we encounter in everyday life, enabling them to communicate with us and to develop, that sort of thing is truly remarkable. We are very proud that our vision has been so well received, and that more and more people approach us asking for the same thing for their companies,” says Fischer. Including its two founders, the company now consists of ten people.
Pepper – the robot with a human touch
Despite its relative infancy, the Blackout team has been able to attract notable clients from across Europe on the strength of its software. For example, their robots have been used at trade fairs to give directions, welcome delegates or simply as a talking point.
The tablet on Pepper’s chest is an information display and control pad.
© WFB/Jann Raveling